KNITTING needles are clicking and presser feet are whirring as a 1,200-strong angel army across the UK offers arguably the kindest service on the planet.
When the unimaginable happens and grieving parents are dealing with a miscarriage, a stillborn baby or the loss of their child shortly after birth, the charity Cherished Gowns UK is ensuring that life is honoured in the most heart-achingly beautiful way.
The team has worked tirelessly over the past four years to provide all the UK’s hospital maternity units with the most exquisite packs of handmade clothing. Each includes a hat, booties, cloth nappy, blanket and a delicate, fully-lined gown – created from wedding dresses donated by members of the public.
The average frock gifts between 20 and 25 tiny garments. The ones with the 20ft trains (as has just been received) will be transformed into 100. The sizing starts at 12 weeks and comes in every conceivable colour.
They are free of charge.
The charity’s founder Megan McKay said: “Parents most often say they would like their child to be handled with dignity and to be warm. It gives choice back to the parents; they have some options.
“Your baby died and we cannot begin to take away the pain away, but we can do something.”
Before Cherished Gowns UK was born in 2014, hospitals often used blue roll and kidney dishes. Now there is a recognised protocol of care with training and provision in place out-of-hours. Megan and her volunteer team have sent out more than 350,000 sets and during September are reaching out to the country’s 4,000 funeral directors to ensure no one is missed.
It all started when the 30-year-old, a talented seamstress thanks to skills passed on from her late, beloved mother-in-law Maggie, heard of a friend of a friend of a friend looking for a funeral gown for her baby, who passed away in hospital shortly after birth. She found items in America but not in the UK. Megan gathered the measurements and set to work and created something that rendered the recipient, her family and her midwife speechless.
Word-of-mouth lead to a Facebook page, which demonstrated a need, which signalled the start of a new charity. It went from a living room in Dover to office premises and this month an imminent move to an even bigger headquarters.
The postie needs a back rub after daily deliveries as it is not unusual to receive five large sacks of mail.
The delicate blankets and booties being made need to be perfect. Cherished Gowns UK has a chief seamstress, a costume designer who fitted effortlessly into the pages of Vogue, who mentors the volunteers remotely until their work is good enough to be worthy of one of the wedding dresses. All items receive feedback to ensure consistency and the highest standards.
The volunteers themselves have their own stories. The vast majority are retired and they want to deploy their flair and artistry to a worthwhile cause. There is a chap in his 70s who sends five white blankets a month; he used to knit socks in the forces. One lady left it a year after her miscarriage to learn to live with the emotional devastation before ensuring others do not have a similar experience – her husband desperately traipsing the aisles of a toy shop to find a doll’s dress small enough for their lost child.
Another woman felt able to seek the resting place of her baby after getting involved, a search that was successful and offered some peace.
Other volunteers are gaining valuable work experience or rebuilding confidence; going on to study or head back into employment, meaning Cherished Gowns UK is giving in all manner of ways.
Megan said: “Statistics show there are 3,500 babies stillborn in the UK each year. The numbers are recorded from 24 weeks, so you can imagine the true figures. There are reportedly in the region of 600 miscarriages a day in Britain.
“We are on the whole a positive bunch, but of course it is not always all sunshine and light. On days like those we read some of the comments from parents to lift us, which it always does. They are the reason we do it.”
The charity is funded by grants and donations and also auction proceeds. Something made a seamstress stop before plunging some pinking shears into a Vera Wang when that arrived. It went on to make a tidy sum.
Everyone who donates receives an update on what has been made from their dress or are asked if they are happy for it to be sold to support the vital work in a different way.
Megan is married to Rob and the couple’s hands are also kept busy with Daniel, four, Sophie, seven, and Josh, 13. They are blessed, although their journey has not been without sadness and heartbreak, meaning they understand the need for the utmost care and compassion which is the foundation of the charity.
Little wonder then she received a Prime Minister’s award for her work earlier this year, albeit she thought the call from Downing Street was a wind up.
But it was an accolade which was richly deserved as behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain, which is especially true in all Cherished Gowns UK do.
You can find out more and make a donation here: https://www.cherishedgowns.org.uk/